Archive for ‘Books read in 2017’

July 2, 2017

June Reading

Looking increasingly wild-eyed, I assure you that when this thesis is over I will read some serious important books again. For now, this is what I read in June.

 

Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi: This has been getting some positive buzz in the US as a romcom about arranged marriage, and friends and I have been rather side-eyeing it–not because we’re set against the concept per se (some of our best friends and family etc) but because this particular iteration of it seems to involve a) teenagers and b) manipulation by family (and c) being very clearly aimed at a not-Indian audience ["idli cakes"]). Having read it, I don’t think the book ever manages to deal with or explain away the parts of the story that feel inherently unpleasant; which might be fine in some circumstances (a lot of romance fiction does this, and it can be cathartic or have other uses for the reader) but I don’t get the impression that this book is positioning itself that way.  None of this, however, was as hazardous to my experience of the book as my dislike of its male protagonist, who you just know will be posting sanghi memes on facebook about three years into this relationship.

 

Thomas Burnett Swann, The Forest of Forever, The Day of the Minotaur: I went through a period, lasting several years, when I’d forget both author and title but suddenly feel a yearning for a particular story in a particular anthology and have to hunt it down. (It was Swann’s “The Sudden Wings”, in the Tom Shippey-edited Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories.) More recently, I’ve been promising myself that I’d read some of Swann’s work beyond that one story. I did enjoy these two books, but I suspect that was more to do with the novelty of reading a book entirely unconnected to either my thesis or to any current literary conversation. The Day of the Minotaur (which was published first) begins with some of the things that I liked about “The Sudden Wings” (our history, but with ancient remnants of a world of gods and monsters, sexy Other mythological creatures, siblings, generally charged interactions) and peters into something rather more domestic and less exciting, whereas The Forest of Forever, a prequel to the earlier book, doesn’t really add much except the revelation that the Minotaur was previously in love with his eventual girlfriend’s mother, and to make the sexy tree nymph character of the earlier book seen pathetic. I’ve seen commentary on Swann that describes these books as sexually charged, and while there are moments where that is true, the thing that I’m most struck by in these books is how profoundly uncomfortable they are with sex, even as they seem unable to move away from the idea of it. In “The Sudden Wings” these impossible impulses turned into something sharp and lovely; here they just … dwindle into not very much.

 

Victor LaValle, Dietrich Smith, Joana Lafuente, Destroyer #1-2: I’ve been planning for ages to read Victor LaValle, particularly since this great review of The Ballad of Black Tom (full disclosure: I edited the review, so am biased in the matter of its greatness. I’m still right though). I have read Frankenstein, over and over; I love it for its richness, and how much it offers a reader to play with. LaValle’s take on it, planned as a six issue series, is set in the present; the creature comes back among humans just as a (black, woman) scientist has begun to reanimate her child, killed in circumstances the reader hasn’t yet been explicitly shown. It’s probably a reductive way to look at LaValle’s career (he’s written a few novels and a short story collection) to focus on one novella and one comics series, but I get the impression that the two would bounce off one another really well–both repurposing classic works of horror to centre a grief and anger that are specific to an African American context. Thus far, Destroyer is upsetting and uncomfortable in all the best ways, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Island at the End of Everything: I was underwhelmed by Millwood Hargrave’s first book, though I seem to have been in a minority in this opinion (it has won several prizes since I read it). Even at the time though, I thought there were things it did well–domestic details and (initially) sense of place, some startlingly good turns of phrase. It just didn’t cohere into one thing, or (this feels more important, because coherence is overrated) make me particularly care about it. It’s at times like this that one notices things like flaws in worldbuilding. This new book is set in our own world, or a version of it, and has a much clearer sense to me of what it wants to be–this version of the Philippines is not miles away from the “real” one, and the tone is fabulist rather than fantastical. Its concerns (families split apart, people waiting to die, found family, stigma) feel contemporary without being allegorical, and there’s a lot about it I like. Still not entirely to my taste–there’s a lot of capitals floating around in phrases like “the Places Outside” and the lyricism of the prose is a bit hit and miss–but that’s me, not it.

 

(I also managed to watch some movies this month. My thoughts on The Mummy are here; and I’m still trying to write about the sort of thesis-relevant Arthur: Legend of the Sword. I doubt I’ll be writing about Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, which seems a pity since it’s the most interesting of the three by some distance.)

June 6, 2017

April and May Reading

By the time I sat down to write about what I’d read in April, it was nearly June (it is now very much June). Thus: a two month reading post, in which, as you’ll see, not very much actual reading was done.

 

Alex Wheatle, Straight Outta Crongton: Naturally I’ll be writing about this at length eventually, but some preliminary (potentially spoiler-y?) thoughts: firstly, there’s something interesting going on with time here. Straight Outta Crongton has as one of its major characters Elaine, older sister to the protagonist of Liccle Bit, but it’s set a few years before that novel, when Elaine is in her mid teens and hasn’t yet met Manjaro. So it’s a prequel; that in itself isn’t unusual–but all its cultural references are current. So either all three books take place in a much tighter time frame than I’ve been assuming (and even then, considering Obama is the former US president in this book that can’t be all), or Crongton is outside time for the space of the books (much as it’s set in a place that isn’t real), or this is the current book and Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights are set in the future. It’s also in many ways darker than the first two books, and thinking about that both in terms of This Historical Moment and of Wheatle’s switch to a cast of mostly women is interesting to chew on. It’s good, which is the important thing.

Robin Stevens, Cream Buns and Crime: Because I read every Robin Stevens book about ten minutes after it becomes available, I’d also been buying her Wells and Wong short stories as they came out as ebooks. Cream Buns and Crime is in part a vehicle for getting those short stories into print, so that alongside the couple of new stories and other material in this collection, I was effectively getting a bunch of things I’d already got. Which is not an unusual thing for a publisher to do, but did make the book a bit underwhelming as a New Robin Stevens Book. The couple of new stories are good, though I’m slightly offended at the break from the Hazel-writes-the-novels, Daisy-writes-the-shorts tradition (one of these is a Junior Pinkertons story, and one is narrated by Beanie.

Hope Larson, Brittney Williams, Sarah Stern, Goldie Vance Vol. 1: The friend who lent this to me grabbed my interest by claiming it was a girl detective story, set in a 1950′s hotel, with a queer romance subplot–all of which made for a convincing argument. She did not mention the drag racing and cold war anxieties  (in retrospect, I ought to have expected both) or indeed the space! plot (which I did not expect). I don’t know how I feel about the comic’s choice to so completely identify with its heroine’s 20th century American fears of The Russians, however plausible that might be for this setting, but it’s still really charming.

Innosanto Nagara, My Night in the Planetarium: Nagara has featured in these monthly lists of reading before for his alphabet and counting board books, A is for Anarchist and Counting on Community. This is a few steps up as regards reading age–where the audience of A is for Anarchist was probably going to have to rely on parents for conversations about what “Zapatista” meant (which was one of the book’s strengths, of course), this has brief, accessible explanations of colonialism, censorship and recent history, woven into an autobiographical story. The art continues to be great, and I think Nagara’s achieving a really interesting balance between taking big things seriously and making them accessible to very young readers.

Rick Riordan, The Dark Prophecy: I don’t know that I have much to say about this, given that it’s mid-series; I did enjoy it, but was also a bit underwhelmed. The previous book set up a horrifying, complicated situation (wrt one character’s history of abuse, and her relationship to the man who abused her); the abuser is not in this book, which is nice; but the problem seems rather to have vanished for the duration of his absence, which is … hm. On the other hand, I’ve been reading these interconnected series since they started and there’s something so nice about (how to say this without sounding patronising? I don’t mean to be) seeing Riordan’s politics evolve, and seeing the books increasingly value particular forms of community and safety. (Also there’s a very good elephant.)

Elsie J. Oxenham, Stowaways in the Abbey; Strangers in the Abbey:  Readers of this blog know of my series-completionist side, which has led me to make unfortunate choices in the past. These two were the result of a visit to Barter books some weeks ago. I’ve read most of the Abbey series at some point or another, but my knowledge of the “retrospective” titles (see) is patchy. As with many fill in titles both of these are heavy on the foreshadowing (see for example Jen’s insistence that Joan is going to call her daughter Janice, and that said daughter will be May queen at school and will choose lobelias for her flower, or all the discussion of the marriageability of the various Marchwood brothers). While I was reading I was having thoughts about the level of emotion these books allow their characters to show (too much, she said disapprovingly)–it’s all heightened to a point that feels ludicrous to me, but then there are solid reasons for that, and if this was a genre other than Books For Mid-Century Girls they would probably be more clearly theorised. Still, these are extremely far from being among the better Oxenham books.

April 4, 2017

March Reading

March was a great month for buying books (far too many ebooks, trips to bookshops in London that I like, including what could so easily have been a final chance to go to New Beacon [but it wasn’t]), but it was also a heavily research-focused month so that I didn’t actually get that much read. I did get into the excellent habit of reading one story from Speak Gigantular before bed each night–the sort of civilised reading habit that I’ve always found rather awe-inspiring in other people. Apart from the Okojie, each of the books mentioned here I read in a day or so, so that I don’t feel like I did very much reading at all.

 

Patrice Lawrence, Orangeboy: I’ve written about this already; I think it’s great. It’s a gentler book than its premise (protagonist, who is a black teenage boy, is found with drugs on him and the girl who gave them to him has died sitting next to him) suggests, though always alive to the implications and the dangers of the situation. It’s also just … good; in its prose, in how it’s paced, in its random art references.

Irenosen Okojie, Speak Gigantular: As I say above, I read this in bits and pieces over a longish period of time. As a result, I don’t have a strong sense of the collection as a collection; I have a sense of how it all fits together, but need a more condensed reread to really be sure. But the individual stories that make up Speak Gigantular are frequently great, and weird, and upsetting. I’ve half committed to writing about this collection in more detail, so I’ll be returning to it very soon.

Chloe Daykin, Fish Boy: The blurb on the front of this is probably not one for the ages: “a talking mackerel changes everything …” Fish Boy (which is a lot better than that blurb) is about Billy, who loves the sea and David Attenborough, is terrified by his mother’s mysterious illness, and really wants to be friends with the new boy, Patrick. While swimming, he meets and grows increasingly close to a mackerel shoal, particularly to a fish he names Bob. I’m going to be writing about this at greater length, but I really liked its invocations of friendship and family and uncertainty and caring, its northernness, and its slight air of apocalypse.

Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything: This book was absurdly readable–I started it on a lazy evening, read straight through and was done a couple of hours later. Its romance is over the top but satisfying, its use of various formats (text and email, but also backwards writing and medical reports and book reviews and creative dictionary definitions) good, the illustrations (by David Yoon) are nice. But (as I say elsewhere) there are also what feel to me like significant weaknesses–and the final act in particular feels less like the miracle the characters need and more like a cop-out.

Innosanto Nagara, Counting on Community: I read Nagara’s A is for Anarchist some months ago, and have since gifted it to a couple of friends with small children. I’m unable to say much that is useful about a board book, but this one is also great (though the numbers 1-10 leave less scope to play than the whole alphabet), the art continues to be good, there are several ducks, and I will also be passing this one on to actual children.

March 4, 2017

February Reading

I didn’t read very much in February. I spent the first week attempting to read or reread all of Frances Hardinge’s work for this, but for most of the month reading has felt impossible and I’ve only gotten through two books (both short, both kidlit, one of which I’d read before). Still, these are them:

 

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jo To The Rescue: I don’t know that this should count as a book read in 2017, since I probably read it sometime around 1995. My copy (the same Armada edition I now have, with this technically accurate yet otherwise unattractive cover–pay particular attention to the face Margot Maynard (the child with red hair) is making) was lost in a house move at some point and I never found another, even as I managed to gradually re-build my collection of Brent-Dyer books. Recently a friend was selling some of hers, and I swooped in and demanded this one. Twentyish years on I like the holiday setting, in large part because it’s nice to see Frieda, Simone and Marie just hanging out and being adults together. I’m concerned by how amused everyone is about food-wastage (there’s still a war and presumably war rationing on; why is it hilarious that Joey burnt the eggs and spilt the milk and threw bacon at a burglar?). I’m also concerned by the ethics of doctor-patient relationships, and “I’ll introduce you to my pretty sister” as a method for reforming criminal harassers. In short: I have several concerns.

 

Catherine Johnson, Sawbones: I read this in preparation for reading Blade and Bone, Johnson’s most recent novel (and sequel to this). Sawbones is set (mainly) in late eighteenth century London, with a young apprentice surgeon as its protagonist. It’s a setting that you can do a lot with, and Johnson does–there are bodysnatchers and medical history and debates about ethics and reason (and whether stealing people’s bodies to dissect for Science! is okay) and that really satisfying sense of the interconnectedness of the world that you get from some historical fiction that takes the age of empire as its setting. Loveday, along with the mystery that drives it all, has links with the Ottoman empire; Ezra himself is mixed-race and from Jamaica; the girl he has a crush on has family connections with Holland–these (except the first) seem like relatively minor elements of the plot, but their presence changes the flavour of the narrative in what feel to me like crucial ways. Without being About empire, or About slavery, or About race, or About social history in general, it makes them crucial to its setting; the reader isn’t allowed Georgian London and coffeeshops and Ottoman intrigue unless they’re willing to also take slavery and dissected stolen corpses and empire. There’s a sense, as well, of young adults as actively participating in the intellectual life of their particular historical moment; and Ezra and Anna, his sort-of-girlfriend, have fundamental philosophical disagreements. Too often characters in children’s literature and YA seem to start from a position of political unawareness, which might make for an easy coming of age plot (character discovers injustice, gains knowledge, grows) but it serves to position that initial lack of engagement as normal. Sawbones doesn’t do that, and it doesn’t treat these characters as exceptional for their interest in the world.

Having said all of which, it seems a bit churlish to complain that the plot is rather lightweight and the characters (other than Ezra himself) rather thin, but those things are also true. I’m willing to forgive the book these things because it does so much that I like historical fiction to do (and because the blurb for the next book has the line “Ezra is not persuaded by the controversial theories of his French colleagues”), and I’m quite looking forward to the next.

February 1, 2017

January Reading

This month I attempted to re/read all of Frances Hardinge’s work, for this event, taking place a few days from now. In addition:

 

Arshia Sattar and Sonali Zohra (and Valmiki, I guess?), The Ramayana: I’ll be writing about this separately, but what really matters is that it’s a very pretty edition with stunning (by Zohra) art.

Sarnath Banerjee, All Quiet in Vikaspuri: I suspect that there are a few overlapping things between this and Banerjee’s The Harappa Files, which I haven’t yet read, and which I’m going to have to. I enjoyed AQiV more than I ever have Banerjee’s work before–it’s a little too keen to explain to you how capitalism and its depredations of the water table work, which is fine if that’s what the book wants to do but it’s not clear to me that it knows what its priorities are, and yet. It feels more of my city than I’d expected–I read it a couple of weeks after a morning (and subsequently an afternoon) at the Bhikaji Cama Place passport office where the book opens, and I live and have worked in the parts of the city that subsequently are the focus of the water wars.

Anushka Kalro, Rajasee Ray, Sankhalina Nath, Shubhangi Goel, Bhoomi’s Story–SPACE: This is part of a “first look science” series from Tulika books that tells the “stories” of particular things in the natural world–others include Boondi, Dhooli, Gitti and Beeji (or WATER, AIR, EARTH and EARTH’S SURFACE). This one, as the title suggests, is about earth-as-planet; its place in the vastness of space. I love Tulika’s children’s books, and the illustrations here are beautiful, with lots of unexpected little effects–the long, swirly lines that depict earth’s oceans, the dotted lines to show you Jupiter’s gases. It’s not clear to me which of the authors credited was responsible for the art; a note at the end mentions that the whole project was developed with Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. I was briefly put out by being told that Bhoomi is “not too cold or too hot to live on” (child!me would have had some serious questions about “life” in this context) but then got to this, close to the end, and was won over:

(If anyone wanted to send me a copy of Dhooli, feel free.)

Chandrakala Jagat, Shakuntala Kushram, (trans) Rinchin, The Magical Fish: I’ve written more about this (gorgeous) book here.

Foz Meadows, An Accident of Stars: I write academically about portal fantasies, among other things, and one of my constant questions when I read modern ones (especially ones, like this one, that are trying so hard) is to what extent the genre can escape its imperial roots. The answer, unfortunately, seems to be not very much–even populating the secondary world with characters with a range of loyalties, races, sexualities, religions (only two religions, but still) doesn’t entirely mitigate the fact that the language with which we describe the fantastic encounter and the language with which we describe the colonial encounter are so inextricably intertwined–and while Meadows’s our-world teenaged protagonist is often confused and terrified by the situations she’s found herself in, there’s a certain amount of “only this person from another world could have seen/done this thing!” which is, again, unfortunate. But this is all, as I say, a genre-related issue rather than one particular to this book; and I do like the interactions between the adult characters and their various conflicting attitudes towards care of the young people who live with them. And there’s an extended sequence involving dragons. A problem that is particular to this book–it is, as I say, trying very hard wrt race and sex and gender and the result is sometimes rather crude, as if someone is explaining in a voiceover somewhere (and that was when Saffron realised the thing she was thinking was racist!). Mixed feelings, then.

Ashwin Pande, Arjuna Susini, Aditya Bidikar, Mistry, P.I #1: (Disclaimer: I know both Pande and Bidikar–the latter for several years–and am disposed to like things they make) This is a supernatural crime series where a pair of detectives (also a thing I’m disposed to like) consisting of a golem and a young man with a Mysterious Past investigate things in Mumbai and in this particular plot rescue some dogs. I’ll probably be reading the rest of the series, because it’s funny and I owe it my loyalty for rescuing the dogs, but as is usually the case when I’ve just read one issue of something, I don’t have deep insights to share.

Ayisha Malik, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged: I only heard of this because of the embarrassing Jenny Colgan review of the book Malik wrote with Nadiya Hussain. So it’s nice that something positive came out of that mess? It’s not a perfect book–I enjoy our protagonist’s frivolity, but when she’s then paired with a much more seriously, very politically aware man there’s an uncomfortable undertone of him educating her about racism and islamophobia (his politics are, however, sometimes undermined and I suspect this is going to be explored a bit further in the sequel); the whole thing does feel overlong, and I’d really enjoy seeing some further recognition of Sofia’s own flaws beyond her seeming obliviousness to men who are in love with her. Having said all of which, Sofia’s frequent angsting about things like tone and stereotype and writing to a British audience within a book which, etc., is great: there’s nothing particularly radical about this sort of metafiction anymore, but it makes possible a particular sort of dwelling on the shape of the fiction that I really enjoy. Plus, it’s a nice, satisfying romantic comedy.

Eloisa James, Seven Minutes In Heaven: I’d almost forgotten that I’d preordered this several months ago, and then it showed up on the last day of the month, mere hours after I’d sent off a biggish piece of writing and really wanted a book to wallow in. I read James because I like series fiction and big, interconnected worlds–this particular book is even more series-y than most series books because it’s the sort of thing where lots of minor characters from the author’s earlier books show up and are married off, in ways that I would object to strenuously (tying up narrative threads is gross and immoral) if they weren’t in a historical romance. A thing I liked: the shifting between Eugenia’s fond memories of her late husband and our more ambivalent sense of him–there’s still an implied sense that we can see more clearly than she can, but it’s far more nuanced than the usual portrayal of this sort of thing. (It slackens a little when she and Our Hero have sex–till now, the book has been refreshingly cliche-free in suggesting that Eugenia’s husband was great in bed, that she’s a woman who has had a fulfilling sex life in the past, but convention demands that the hero of this book must obviously be better. Suddenly she’s the sort of heroine who is amazed by men going down on her, and it’s a shame.) A thing I didn’t like: for much of the book the characters are away from the nice, interconnected community that the series allows us to have, and it feels like a waste. (Also, why doesn’t Reeve have any friends?)